March 17, 2015 by Kambili M.A. Chimalu
I am a feminist. I have never denied that and I don’t think I ever will. I can’t explain it exactly, but I believe that my environment forced me to become one. It was a matter of self-preservation.
Whenever I have a conversation with Nigerian guys and dare (gasp) to express an independent opinion, I am looked at like some kind of aberration. This is not limited to just Nigerian guys. To a lesser extent, Nigerian women look at me with a mix of pity and disdain, debating whether to revoke my “womanhood” card.
It gets tiresome having the same conversation over and over again, but just today, I found myself in this old dance of explaining myself yet again. Kehinde* (not his name, obviously) delights in snidely remarking that my feminism is somewhat of a flaw. He often reminds me that he is a traditionalist and I take great pleasure in flashing my feminist beliefs in his face. We do this dance where he tries to explain to me why we must adhere to our culture/traditions and I remind him that we were not made for culture; culture was made for us. The fact that it worked for our ancestors does not mean it is going to work for us in this century. We realized that when we saw the barbarity in killing twins. Those people it worked for are long dead and we are under no obligation to continue to live by their edicts. This is always how it starts before we both agree to disagree.
One question that keeps coming up though is why I am a feminist. That is a very easy question to answer because I have never seen a place that needed feminism more than Nigeria does. The moment I started to be conscious of my being was the moment I realized the injustice that is womanhood in Nigeria. This is why I am a feminist. Some people may still be confused at this point, so I will explain further by painting a series of scenarios for everyone.
If I am a thirty year old unmarried woman in Nigeria, everyone will look at me with pity/disappointment, but no one blinks an eyelid when the situation is reversed and it is a thirty year old man that is unmarried. Let’s say that I eventually get married, but my husband and I are not able to have children; everyone looking will automatically assume that it is my (the woman’s) fault. Rarely do people assume that the problem is with the man. Let’s say that I get married, go through nine months of discomfort and hours of labour to have children, but those children all happen to be girls; people will look at me with pity as if girls are not children. There may even be talk of getting a second wife for the man. Let’s say I get married, have female children, but all of a sudden I lose my husband, people will look at me with suspicion and I will be forced to undergo several dehumanizing trials to show that I did not kill my husband. I will have to sleep with the corpse, drink the water that was used to bathe the corpse, shave my hair (possibly with a blunt instrument so as to inflict maximum pain and injury), wear black for months, and perform a public cry. This is all to show that I am innocent of killing my husband, their precious son. Let’s say I get married, have female children, and lose my husband, but dare to smile at another man one year after the death of my husband, people will look at me with derision and conclude that I killed my husband in order to carry on with my lover. Let’s say that I get married, have female children, lose my husband, and smile at another man, my husband’s people will come to claim their son’s property. The fact that I worked with my husband to acquire those properties becomes null and the fact that I have children, their son’s children, becomes void.
The scenarios I just painted are but a tip of the iceberg. There are other little and big things that are often used to remind women of their inferiority in the Nigerian society. In an environment rife with that kind of inhumanity and injustice towards women, what woman in her right mind would not want to advocate for the liberation of her sex. So, the correct question is not “why am I a feminist,” but “why wouldn’t I be a feminist?” As humans, we are wired to survive and self-preserve, so surviving, for me, means casting off the shackles of patriarchal edicts.
I find that I am often explaining why I am a feminist, but I seldom get the chance to explain why I did not become a feminist:
- I did not become a feminist, so that I could rule men. I have absolutely ZERO interest in ruling anyone. I have a hard time ruling myself as it is to want to rule another grown adult.
- I did not become a feminist because I hate men. I love men. I love my dad. I love my brothers, cousins, nephews, etc. I can spend eternity describing in vivid details how much I love men, but that would not be enough time. I LOVE MEN.
- I did not become a feminist because I am a bra burning, man hating lesbian. I love the support my bras give me, so I have not burnt any of them yet. I am not a lesbian. In case of any confusion, refer back to number two above. Enough said.
- I did not become a feminist because I want to turn my husband into a houseboy. Again, I have absolutely no interest in turning an adult into my houseboy.
I have come to realize that once some people hear the word “feminist,” they immediately draw a mental image of a group of man-hating, phallo-envying extremists. They tend to believe that any woman who is a feminist is either trying to become a man or is hell-bent on emasculating and dominating all the men in her life. As a result of all these negative connotations that are attached to feminism, some men tend to out-rightly dismiss it without trying to understand it and some women tend to abhor it because they want to retain their femininity and “womanhood card.” In addition, detractors of feminism often question why women (feminists) demand to control their own lives and bodies. This is not merely a matter of purposely seeking out trouble or creating oppression where there is none. It is a matter of demanding that women not be treated as mindless objects that are meant to be controlled. Feminism seeks to not only point out instances of dehumanization, but to create an environment where people recognize and condemn the dehumanization of men and women.
People need to understand that feminism is not about frivolous things. It is not even about the emasculation of men. It is about the well-being and survival of a large segment of the population. Like all organized institutions, feminism has its share of extremists that give the rest of us a bad name. For example, members of Boko Haram in Nigeria give Muslims everywhere a bad name and the members of Westboro Baptist Church in the United States of America give Christians everywhere a bad name. Our duty is not to condemn all these institutions as a result of the few bad apples in their midst. We should, therefore, not condemn feminism because of what people perceive it to be. We should focus on the core principle of feminism, which is the equality, well-being, and advancement of everyone [man and woman]. When a woman or man says to me, “I am not a feminist,” I am always heartbroken because I believe that our society is too broken for everyone of us to not be a feminist.
I will end by saying that I am a card carrying, man and woman loving, feminist. It is a thing I am proud of because of all the achievements and successes we have had so far. Feminism is not perfect. It has its issues which are constantly being addressed, but it also has its wonderful merits.
P.S: I understand that there is a very tiny minority of Nigerians that do not fall into the categories I have described above. These men and women, like me, are trying to make our country a great one for women. I have generalized because the overwhelming majority is so patriarchal/conservative that it sometimes seems like the majority’s voice is drowning out that of the minority.